Russian troops bombarded a riverside city on Friday in what appeared to herald a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in a province it claims on behalf of separatists.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had launched a massive artillery bombardment against Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-held bastions in Luhansk, one of two southeastern provinces Moscow and its proxies proclaim as independent states.
The city, and its twin Lyshchansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskiy Donets river, form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.
“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said via his Telegram channel.
“We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment,” he said.
Ukraine’s general staff said it had pushed back an offensive on Sievierodonetsk, part of what it described as major Russian operations along a stretch of the frontline.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, in what some military analysts view as a major push to achieve scaled-down war aims of capturing more territory claimed by pro-Russian rebels.
“This will be the critical next few weeks of the conflict,” said Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “And it depends on how effective they are at conquering Sievierodonetsk and the lands across it.”
In Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would be over soon.
In an overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the conditions in the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk province, as “hell” and said the region had been “completely destroyed” by Russia.
Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim victory after it announced last month that this was now its objective. It achieved a major step towards that goal this week, when Ukraine ordered its garrison in the main Donbas port, Mariupol, to stand down after a near three-month siege.
Russia’s Shoigu said around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in the past four days.
Kyiv has not confirmed how many fighters have surrendered, but Britain gave the first official Western confirmation that a large Ukrainian force had laid down arms in the plant, estimating the number at around 1,700. An unknown number were still believed to be inside, it said.
In a video, the commander of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian unit that had defended the plant, confirmed the order to stop fighting was being carried out, and said all civilians and wounded fighters were now out.
Denys Prokopenko, the commander, gave no details of the fate of other fighters, but said a process was under way to remove the dead from underground tunnels and bunkers.
“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honour,” Prokopenko said.
The Red Cross says it has registered hundreds of Ukrainians who surrendered as prisoners of war, but has given no firm numbers.
Kyiv says it wants to arrange a prisoner swap for Azovstal defenders it describes as heroes. Moscow says they will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying some must be tried for crimes and even executed.
The past week has seen Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO, the biggest shakeup in European security for decades, although Turkey has said it will block the move, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring Kurdish militants.
After weeks of threatening to retaliate, Putin appears to have mostly climbed down, saying this week that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden did not represent a threat as such, unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nevertheless, Defence Minister Shoigu said on Friday Moscow planned to beef up its forces nearby in response to what he called new threats.
Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven in recent weeks out of the area around Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the area around Kyiv at the end of March.
But they still control a large swathe of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means that territory is now largely unbroken. Ukraine says Russia is trying to impose its own administration and could try to annex occupied territory, possibly by staging fake votes.
Still, military analysts say Russia has been using up its firepower against an underestimated foe, and may be running out of time to achieve its aim of capturing the whole Donbas.
“Nothing is set yet. But it will be very much the next phase … before the Kremlin must freeze positions on the ground and stop advancing and shift to positional warfare,” said Boulegue, the Chatham House expert.
In a sign of Russia’s aim to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider a bill to allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to sign up for the military. Putin has stopped short of declaring his “special military operation” to be a war, which would make it easier to mobilise reservists and conscripts.